I felt sad when I saw this yesterday. As a previously-Catholic/Christian person, I can relate to feeling this way. But as a person who now celebrates Christmas in a purely secular way, I see another side. So this statement didn't contain truth, to me:
"Without Christ, Christmas would be a massive list of obligations and to-dos. It would be a little goodwill and a whole lot of greed. It would be transitory peace found in a sugar coma or a pretty light display or a brief moment of entertainment."
Can we discuss this? It's true that consumerism and to-do lists can take over at this time of year (and any time of year), if we let them. But it's also true that this holiday is a cobbling-together of a lot of traditions from many different cultures and beliefs, all of which ultimately reflect the human need for a light in the cold darkness of wintertime. While Christ is that light for some, is it too much to ask that we consider that Christmas and the other winter holidays can also be a time of centeredness for those who don't believe in a deity, or who believe in another deity or deities?
The winter holidays are not only about religion. Their roots tap into something universal, a need to bring warmth to cold days, sparkle into long nights, and hope for the spring ahead. From this need come decorated evergreen trees, yule logs set ablaze, songs filling the night, cups of cheer, gatherings of friends and family, exchanges of gifts to express love. I would posit that you don't need to believe in one particular deity, or any deity at all, to tap into this. After all, those needs stretch into human history, long before our mythologies were born. All we really need is to keep our focus, which requires reflection and mindfulness.
The author of the original "I Believe" piece, "I Would Hate Christmas Without Christ," finds that centeredness in Bible study. I don't. And chances are that some of you don't, either.
Some of the ways that I fight stress and keep my mind on what Christmas means to me include:
Intentionality. Why do I do what I do? Do I follow a certain tradition out of a sense of obligation (to family, to friends, to myself, to my kids)? Do I truly want to perpetuate this particular tradition? When I find myself feeling stressed, I find that the stress is a clue to something that needs to change. Which leads to the next point...
Abstention. Stress often means it's time to say no to something; just don't do it. Give fewer gifts. Dicuss *not* exchanging gifts with some people. Bail out of a tradition you have never enjoyed. Skip a certain activity this year. That activity might even be one you love, but skipping it this year may enable you to enjoy everything else just a little bit more, and will make it even more special when you decide to revive it in some future year.
Conscious gift-giving. A bunch of years back, somebody introduced me to this little rhyme as a mantra of sorts for gift-giving: "Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read." It's simple, easy to remember, and helps to put some boundaries on your gift-giving that prevent going overboard or finding "just one more thing". It's easy to know when to stop shopping/making when you have a clear goal in mind. I have always felt strongly about choosing gifts that truly fit the recipient, because that act of thoughtful giving says "you are seen and known and loved," and I like how that approach to gifting fits with the rhyme. I find that it's easier to get ideas through the year when I'm thinking, "oh, that would be a perfect 'something to wear' for Griffin." It's also easier to plan gift-giving with this framework - Dan and I can sit down to brainstorm and know what kind of ideas we want, and we can clearly see when we're finished. Some side benefits: it's helpful to parents who want to make sure that siblings feel like they're treated fairly/equally, and it's also helpful to grandparents who might need encouragement to lavish a slightly smaller pile of gifts on their loved ones.
Your conscious gift-giving scheme might take a different form, but I highly recommend having one.
Perspective. It's easy to get wrapped up in the "everything must be perfect!!!" mindset. But think for a moment. When a friend gives a gift to you, do you critique the wrapping? Sure, if it's extra-pretty you admire it, but ultimately, you don't think less of them if it's not clever and intricate. And it gets ripped up, anyway, right? When you visit people, I'm sure you enjoy their decor, but if their home is less-decorated, does that really impact your happiness, or is it their company that you enjoy? When you're stressing out about creating a fantastic holiday for somebody, talk to yourself for a moment - what would really happen if you didn't do all of it? Which parts are most likely to be truly enjoyed? And would you really think less of a loved one who didn't do all of that stuff? It's awesome to exercise your creativity and create elaborate traditions and decor and food and plans...but if it's weighing you down, ask yourself, does it really matter in the long run? Is it worth trading your peace of mind and subjecting those around you to your stress?
Focus. Ultimately, why do you do what you do? I'm willing to bet that it comes down to loving somebody, wanting to make the world a better place, enjoying some aspect of winter. Hold those things in the front of your mind. Let unnecessary things fall away. The best holidays in my life have been the most simple or the most fly-by-the-seat of your pants. There was the year when my family couldn't afford a purchased tree and simply cut a scraggly white pine from our back yard. We had just a few gifts, mostly homemade, under the tree. The sense of appreciation of what we have and of connectedness to each other was strong. And there was also the year when my eldest son was born, when our family gathering was thrown into disarray by his birth. Everybody slowed things down, went with the flow, and we celebrated together a day later. It was not what we had planned, and it was perfect.
"We're so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are..." -Calvin and Hobbes
For many people, thinking about the birth of a savior and holy scriptures helps them to find their center. But to say that without Christ, they would hate Christmas and be lost in consumerism and stress strikes me as a tad histrionic and lacking in perspective. The truth is, if they didn't believe in Christ, they would find ways to slow down, to appreciate what they have, to simplify their plans and make them more enjoyable. Without Christ, there are still loving families and friends who want to show how thankful they are for each other. There are still people working toward caring for the sick and the poor and thinking about good will for all humankind. There can still be a focus on values and tradition rather than on dollars spent and hours in the kitchen.
None of us need be condemned to suffering through the holidays, with or without Christ. Nor does a lack of belief in a deity mean that your holiday will be "a little goodwill and a whole lot of greed... transitory peace found in a sugar coma or a pretty light display or a brief moment of entertainment." If you don't believe me, take a moment this month to come share a cup of tea with this atheist on her back porch, and slow down for a while. One of my favorite quotes is this one, from John Greenleaf Whittier: "somehow, not only for Christmas but all the long year through, the joy that you give to others Is the joy that comes back to you." We all feel the need for connection and light, and we can all be that light for each other. As we pass by the 21st, we all start turning our faces toward the sun, and celebrating the hope for spring, whatever name we give that hope.
Namaste, and may you have a wonderful Chanukah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, or whatever holiday is close to your heart. What do you do to keep your focus and protect yourself from being overtaken by stress?